The Graduate (1967)
Written by Calder Willingham & Buck Henry
Directed by Mike Nichols
It’s incredible how some movies have remained as relevant as they were when they were first released. The Graduate is a movie straight out of the ennui of 1960s youth culture, but it’s far more nuanced than that. Roger Ebert’s reading of the film on its original release was to empathize with its protagonist. Thirty years later, he retracted many of his comments to say how his sympathies had shifted to the older woman he has a tryst with, how she is the character the audience is meant to feel heartbreak for. The Graduate is a movie with no heroes or villains, simply people existing, making choices, and never truly knowing if the choices they make are the right ones or not.
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A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Written by Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty
Directed by Blake Edwards
By 1964, British actor Peter Sellers was a well-known name in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world due to his appearance as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in 1963’s The Pink Panther. Previously, Sellers had built a career starting as a member of The Goon Squad on British radio and then as an actor, most prominently in Lolita for Stanley Kubrick. At the start of 1964, audiences were shown Sellers’ full range of abilities in Dr. Strangelove, and at the end of that same year, got A Shot in the Dark. Clouseau was a populist character, a mockery of the police that gave the audience laughs over his pompous buffoonery. That’s the core conceit of the character is that he is an idiot who carries himself with unearned confidence and, when he is proven inept time and time again, persists in his methods. He is the perfect parody of a police officer. Filmmaker Blake Edwards wanted to keep the Clouseau money machine going, so he, along with William Peter Blatty (yes, the author of The Exorcist), adapted a French play about a stupid detective investigating a murder and simply made it Clouseau.
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Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Written by Robert Hamer and John Dighton
Directed by Robert Hamer
“Ealing comedies” was an informal name for the comedy films released by Ealing Studios in the United Kingdom from 1947 to 1957. They were often associated with the post-War spirit of Britain, cheery & upbeat movies about simple misunderstandings without cynicism. Of course, that type of movie sounds dreadfully dull, but woven into the catalog was some darker fare. These comedies fit right in with the rest of the company’s work. The best of these films was Kind Hearts and Coronets, based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal and centered on the story of an affable & witty serial killer.
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Written by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney, and Myles Connolly
Directed by Henry Koster
In American media, the dichotomy between smart and kind is often raised. I think it’s important to note what “smart” means in these instances. To be smart in the United States is not to be intelligent. Intellect is an entirely different concept. American smartness is on par with the idea of cunning, being able to outwit others and ensure you are on top of the heap. We can see this in how people with a talent for capitalist exploitation are heralded as brilliant people. They are smart because they find a way to play the game, screw over people not as bright as them, and end up higher on the ladder of power. A smart person in America simply does evil and manages not to get caught. So, when Elwood P. Dowd says, “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant”; it means something more profound.
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Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Written by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Directed by Howard Hawks
Where It Happened One Night was a massive box office & critical success for Columbia Pictures; Bringing Up Baby was initially a bomb for RKO Pictures. It was a film explicitly written with Katharine Hepburn in mind and ended up being the culmination of a string of failures in her career at the time. For five years after winning her first Academy Award, the actress struggled to find work that connected with audiences. However, Hepburn would salvage her career three years later with The Philadelphia Story. As for Bringing Up Baby, it would find a new audience in the 1950s and is now revered as one of the great comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
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It Happened One Night (1934)
Written by Robert Riskin
Directed by Frank Capra
No genre in the arts is more subjective than comedy. Initially, comedy was considered performance pieces with a light-hearted tone. So essentially, anything with a happy ending. That has been the case if you look at most theatrical comedies from ancient Greece into our modern era. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is named that because it delivers an upbeat ending despite some absolutely horrific Inferno sections. Because these stories often had more relatable moments than the more heightened & sadder tragedies, laughter was commonly heard from the audience. Thus, the connection between comedy & funny became a thing.
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Three Colors: White (1994)
Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
There are multiple ways to look at the structure & its relation to the themes of the Three Colors trilogy. One of those is, of course, the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité. However, Krzysztof Kieślowski is intent on subverting our expectations about these concepts. Another is through the lens of a Europe that was in the process of being partially unified. Blue is about Western Europe, White is about Eastern Europe, and Red is set in the “neutral” nation of Switzerland. There are also mood associations with color. Blue tells the story of a woman who has lost her family (she feels “blue”). Red is about passion & love, which that color regularly symbolizes.
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Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Never before in the history of cinema have movies been so technically proficient. Cinematography is always reasonably strong when you come across a studio-produced film. The lighting is pitch-perfect. You cannot beat today’s sound design. All production design elements are spot on, from set dressing to costuming to make-up. The behind-the-scenes people deserve far more credit than they get. They are the laborers who make it feel effortless while putting their total energy into the job. I wish I could say the same about the directors & screenwriters of these big Hollywood pictures, though, but that would be a lie. From Black Adam to Don’t Worry Darling to the seemingly endless Marvel movies to the litany of reboots/sequels/reimaginings, there is a dearth of actual talent steering these movies. I have never been the biggest Damien Chazelle fan, but I enjoyed Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. They were well-made movies with some strong performances. And then we have Babylon. This is where I get off the Chazelle train.
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My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
Written & Directed by Charles Burnett
The career of Charles Burnett has always been one plagued with obstacles. When he was coming up, you couldn’t be a Black filmmaker with deeply artistic inclinations and not have a ton of shit thrown in your path. Today, Black filmmakers benefit from how he carved out a way, and they routinely express their admiration & gratitude for what Burnett did. Killer of Sheep did incredible in the foreign film festival circuit, but when Burnett returned to the States, there wasn’t even a whisper about the movie. In his homeland, he would work in obscurity, a seeming refusal among the white film critic establishment to even acknowledge his work existed. In the 1980s, Burnett was still working, making movies that spoke to him with little focus on their bankability. He definitely would like to have been given the acclaim his white peers received, but that would never happen.
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Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card…or digital access to lots of books.
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